Ubisoft is opening yet another Canadian studio. In addition to its locations in Montreal, Quebec City, Saguenay, Toronto and Halifax, the company will soon have its Western-most outpost in the country yet with the establishment of Ubisoft Winnipeg.
Heading up the studio is its first--and currently only--employee, managing director Darryl Long. Long has spent the last 15 years at Ubisoft Montreal, joining the company as a programmer specializing in AI and most recently serving as producer on the just-launched Far Cry 5.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz, Long said the chance to start a studio from scratch like this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and one that will take him closer to the prairies of Alberta and Saskatchewan where he grew up.
"We very quickly realized that Manitoba, and Winnipeg specifically, is actually a hidden gem of video game talent"
That may help explain his interest in moving to Winnipeg, but what about Ubisoft's? Manitoba's Interactive Digital Media Tax Credit allows companies to claim up to a 40% tax credit on eligible project costs for work in the province, but Long said it takes more than tax cuts to justify an endeavor like this, and the explanation starts with what Ubisoft Winnipeg was created to do.
"There's a very specific and complementary mandate for the studio, which is that we want to contribute to the development of the big AAA brands--like Assassin's Creed, Far Cry, and Watch Dogs--specifically in the area of building open worlds," he said. "Our goal in Winnipeg is to do the research and development on the processes, the pipeline and the tools, to put the investment in to making them as efficient as possible, and ultimately increase the quality of the open worlds we're producing for our games. So we'll be working hand-in-hand with the other Canadian studios to develop their AAA brands, and specifically their open worlds."
With that goal in mind, Ubisoft Winnipeg is expected to grow to a headcount of 100 people within five years, representing an investment of $35 million in the province. Long expects some of those people to have stories similar to his, game developers who left the region to follow their career dreams, but now have prospects to work on big titles while moving closer to home. A considerable number of the rest he hopes will be young developers who never have to choose between leaving home and working in games.
"The video game industry is extremely competitive, and talent is always our number one asset," Long said. "All the Ubisoft studios take that very seriously, and when we started talking to the province, we went to Winnipeg and did our homework, and we very quickly realized that Manitoba, and Winnipeg specifically, is actually a hidden gem of video game talent."
Long pointed to Red River College's creative arts program and the University of Manitoba's engineering, computer science, AI, and robotics programs as particularly well suited to producing candidates capable of building the tech, tools, and content for open worlds. The local talent pipeline goes even further into the future, he said, noting the technology and video game development programs offered at Winnipeg's Sisler High School.
"The difficulty of getting a team aligned and all moving in the same direction is hard enough when you're all in the same place, but when you're distributed, separated by hours and thousands of miles, it's even more difficult"
Going from producer to managing director of a co-development studio will require some adjustment on Long's part. He certainly has experience in distributed development teams. Far Cry 5's team was over 1,000 people worldwide, and spread between a number of studios. Ubisoft Toronto did about one-third of the game's open world, Ubisoft Shanghai was responsible for populating it with wildlife, and Ubisoft Kiev did work on the engine and the PC version. But where Long was previously the producer on the core team at the lead studio working with a number of different co-development studios, this time he will be the head of a co-development studio working to meet the needs of a number of core teams.
"It has many challenges," Long acknowledged. "Communication is absolutely number one. The difficulty of getting a team aligned and all moving in the same direction is hard enough when you're all in the same place, but when you're distributed, separated by hours and thousands of miles, it's even more difficult."
However, those are challenges for the future, and Long will likely be happy to tackle them when they come. A much more imminent challenge is simply securing a good studio space. Fortunately, Ubisoft has gone through this process a number of times before, and other studio founders have given Long some advice on getting Ubisoft Winnipeg off the ground.
Among the early tips? Make sure you get a studio already outfitted for a high-tech company, outfitted for all the power and connection requirements a AAA development house needs.
"It's a small thing, but if you don't think of it in advance, you're going to pay for it later on," Long said.
Ubisoft now has 13,000 employees spread between 30 countries worldwide. About 4,500 of those are based in Canada.